I’ve been meaning to post some book reviews here, but I’ve just been too busy. Therefore, I’m going to post a bunch of quickies together in an attempt to get caught up. These are some of the highlights from the last couple of weeks.
Alvarez – It seems like theoretical physicists get all the press, but Luis Alvarez’s autobiography might convince you that experimental physicists have all the fun. It’s hard to think of anything that happened in the 20th century that he wasn’t in the middle of. He started out helped Lawrence build and operate some of his first cyclotrons. When the war started, he went to the rad lab at MIT to help develop radar. He was the designer of the first radar system for landing aircraft in bad weather. He left the rad lab and traveled to wartime Britain to help deploy the new systems. From there he went to Chicago to help Fermi with the first nuclear reactor. Then it was off to Los Alamos to help develop the implosion bomb. He went to the South Pacific and flew in one of the observation planes during the Hiroshima bombing. He didn’t seem to slow down much after the war. The stories include bigger accelerators, trips to Vietnam during the early days of the war, flying in an F-104 Starfighter, one of the first scientific trips to the Soviet Union, studying pyramids and the Zapruder film, and, oh yeah, the Nobel prize too. But in the long he’ll probably be best known for one of his last projects. Working with his son (a geologist), he proved that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid impact. Quite a life, a lot of great stories, and he tells them all with a great sense of humor.
Barney Frank – Barney Frank is certainly one of the most interesting characters in modern American politics. Stuart Weisberg’s biography is very good. It does a great job of capturing the subject, and it has lots of great detail about how things get done in Washington. Also a great overview of all of the backroom deals that drove Massachusetts politics in the 70’s and 80’s.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown – Paul Theroux taught in Africa in the Peace Corps in the early 60’s. In this book he returns 40 years later and travels the length of Africa via the back roads. Along the way he stays with a farmer in Zimbabwe whose farm has been invaded, visits Rimbaud’s shop in Ethiopia, mixes literary circles in South Africa, and floats down the Zembezi. I enjoyed this a more than most of Theroux’s books. His travel books often have a sense of aloofness, but you can tell from this book that he cares deeply about Africa and what has happened to it since those hopeful days in the 60’s.
Strength in What Remains – Another story about Africa by a great writer. This is the true story of Deogratias who manages to survive the genocide in Burundi (a truly horrific part of the book) and escapes to America with no contacts and 100 dollars in his pocket. With the help of some amazing people he meets along the way, he moves from the streets to Columbia Medical School. After becoming a doctor and working for Partners in Health, he goes back to Burundi to open health clinics for the poor. An amazing story and well told. If you enjoy it, you should read Kidder’s other book about Partners in Health: Mountains Beyond Mountains.
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession – Daniel Levitin also has an interesting life story. He went from playing in a rock and roll band to being a record producer and then back to school to become a researcher in cognitive psychology. He’s written a great introduction to how music makes you feel the things it does. It’s often compared to Oliver Sacks’ beautiful book Musicophilia. They’re both enjoyable, but Levitin’s is probably a better intro to how music actually works. Also a good intro to music theory for anyone who doesn’t know a sharp from a flat.